Diving in Papua New Guinea on the MV Febrina

When it comes to superlatives, diving and Papua New Guinea certainly go hand in hand. Positioned at the easternmost extremity of the Pacific’s famed Coral Triangle, the island nation is an undersea Eden boasting an unrivalled diversity of life. Anchored off the east coast in the Bismarck Archipelago, New Britain is the country’s largest island and home to world-famous Kimbe Bay. Nearly 500km in length and encompassing a huge sweep of the north coast, Kimbe is home to some of PNG’s most famous diving. Scott Bennett revisits his favourite resort to find out what’s going on underwater.

I made my first visit three years earlier. Despite being only a few days, the spectacular diving whetted my appetitive for more. During a stay at Kimbe’s famed Walindi Plantation Resort, I was given a tour of the FeBrina, one of the country’s premier liveaboards. I decided there and then a return visit was in order and several years later, my vow became a reality.

From Port Moresby, I caught a flight to New Britain’s Hoskins airport. Starting from Walindi, the 9-day itinerary was one of FeBrina’s signature trips, taking in Kimbe Bay, the Witu Islands and Fathers Reefs. On hand to meet me was owner Max Benjamin, who along with wife Cecilie runs Walindi Plantation Resort.

Walindi really is a plantation, established in 1935 as a cocoa plantation. Max purchased the property in 1969 and replanted it with oil palms. Exploration of Kimbe Bay revealed a marine habitat of unparalled diversity and Max soon shifted focus to running a dive resort. Today, a maximum of twenty-four guests are catered to in 12 self-contained bungalows nestled amidst the luxuriant tropical vegetation. Everything was so familiar; it felt like I was coming home!

As Kimbe Bay is one of my all-time favourite dive locations, I was thrilled to get in some extra dives prior to the trip. Walindi’s dive boats regularly visit approximately 25 dive sites, with travel times ranging from 5 to 75 minutes. Largely unspoiled by human activity, the nutrient-rich waters boast more than 200 reefs with 70% of all coral species recorded in the Indo/Pacific region. Over 900 fish species have been recorded, a total sure to increase as additional research is carried out.

Setting out, conditions were perfect with a glassy sea and clear, blue sky. Providing a dramatic backdrop was a string of volcanoes flanking the bay’s perimeter. Mt Gabuna, located directly behind the resort, was also active, a fact made clear by the sulphurous aroma that wafted through the previous evening.

Our first destination was Otto Reef, a 45 min trip from the resort and unique in having one of the only male names in the entire bay. Multitudes of corals a jostled for space as tangles of rope sponges cascaded from the walls. High above, a large school of chevron barracuda created a dramatic photographic backdrop to the reef’s dramatic palette.

An isolated seamount, Joelle’s Reef was a favourite from my first trip, its summit a gaudy patchwork of anemones, hard corals and giant orange sponges. A pinjalo school cruised the reef top while big-eye trevalley and barracuda patrolled the perimeter. The dive’s undoubted highlight was the anemones. Resplendent in hues of crimson, blue, magenta, yellow and white, every single one had tentacles withdrawn. One apparently brown specimen was revealed by my strobes to be blood red, resembling a large tomato. Sheer photo bliss! We concluded the day at Vanessa’s Reef, whose uppermost section featured a plateau bursting with sponges and immense fan corals.

Returning late in the afternoon, we encountered a pod of melon-head whales basking on the surface. They allowed a surprisingly close approach before vanishing en masse. A few weeks earlier, a pod of orcas had been observed. Even on a return visit, Kimbe Bay never ceases to amaze!

While few liveaboards are synonymous with their owners, the FeBrina is one very notable exception. Skipper Alan Raabe is a true PNG legend, having dived the country’s reefs for over 20 years. Regarded as one of PNG’s premier boutique liveaboards, the FeBrina started life as a research vessel in the Coral Sea. From its homeport of Walindi, Allan has operated the FeBrina since 1991.

Bags packed, I headed down to the boat just after 5:00, where I met divemasters Josie and Digger. After unloading my gear, Josie on a tour of the boat and I met the rest of the crew. Being one of the only solo travelers, I was pleasantly surprised to discover I had my own cabin. Compact but comfortable, it came complete with ensuite bathroom and hot-water shower.

The spacious dive deck allowed easy access to the water level dive platform, with, Joe, Junior and Levo taking care of our equipment. Everyone was allotted their own shelf for storing masks, fins and weight belts, while special rinse tanks were exclusively reserved for cameras gear. Especially welcome was the row of electrical sockets for that scourge of the digital age: incessant battery charging!

Unfortunately, Alan had a mishap on some stairs before the trip, resulting in some injured ribs. He was sadly out of commission for the beginning of the trip. Soon enough, I had my own mishap while attempting to climb the steps carrying my empty duffel bag. Struggling up in the confined space, I opted to go back down, only to miss a step and scrape my leg on the steel step. It didn’t look pretty, but Josie patched me up. Not exactly the most auspicious start to the trip!

Early the next morning, the four remaining guests arrived from the UK and with everyone aboard, we set out for a day in Kimbe Bay. First up was Vanessa’s Reef and I was more than happy for a return visit. As we headed to the bay’s western extremity, I was thrilled to discover our second dive would be a Zero wreck. Nicknamed “Zero” by American troops during the Second World War, the Mitsubishi A6M5’s were among the most famous of all Japanese warplanes. Featuring a wingspan of 11m and attaining speeds of up to 564 km/hr, they were often utilized during kamikaze raids. Resting at a depth of 15m on a bottom of silt, the Zero wreck was discovered in 2000 by a local fisherman. Although visibility was limited, the wreck was nonetheless fascinating. An anemone perched atop the pilot’s seat proved especially photogenic.

Mealtime quickly proved to be a trip highlight. From the tiny galley, Pauline, Jane and Diane created an array of culinary wonders. Dinner was served ala Carte along with a complimentary glass of wine. Dishes ranged from roast lamb, to pizza and Indian-style curry. An unexpected bonus was a breadmaker, which ensured freshly baked bread and rolls daily.

Around 11:00 PM, we departed for the Witu Islands, situated to the northwest of Kimbe Bay. Swept by strong currents, these outlying jewels are legendary for their big fish action and 30m+ visibility. Witu boasts a variety of outer reef slopes jam-packed with hard coral gardens, submerged pinnacles and precipitous drop-offs. The next morning couldn’t come fast enough!

 After scant hours of sleep, I was roused by a pounding on my door.” Time to go diving” enthused Josie from the hallway beyond. Heading out to the dive deck, I was greeted by a scene exuding tranquility. Wedged between the blue of sea and sky, hilly forest-clad islands punctuated the still water, distantly fading to blue in the humid morning air. The only other sign of life was a trio of local villagers in dugout canoes. All was silent save for the gentle lapping of water around the FeBrina. Talk about being off the beaten path! After a dive brief and a much-needed jolt of coffee (two in my case), everyone was raring to go.

Goru Arches was located on a coral ridge some 20min from our overnight anchorage. Framed with sweeping crimson sea fans in hues of crimson, white and orange, Goru’s twin arches left me grasping for superlatives! Soft corals of pink and lavender played host to legions of feather stars while the sea floor was dotted with whip corals, squat barrel sponges, orange sponges and the occasional green tree coral. We arrived just in time to surprise a slumbering school of bumphead parrotfish before our unwelcome intrusion dispersed them to the deep. Back on board, I hadn’t even removed my wetsuit before Pauline approached to take my breakfast order. , A full hot breakfast of bacon, eggs, beans and toast was soon waiting in the dining area along with a perpetually full pot of brewed coffee. Talk about service!

After breakfast, the wonders kept coming. Witu Drift featured a stunning wall with a sheer wall plummeting to the sandy bottom below. Electric soft corals and anemone-clad barrel sponges shrouded the walls along with a dazzling array of fish. For a change of pace, one afternoon was spent muck diving at Garove Island, the remains of a massive sunken volcanic caldera. Wire Bay’s black sand instantly proved to be a muck mecca, yielding a kaleidoscope of weird and wonderful creatures including leaf scorpionfish, hingebeak shrimp, false clownfish and a dizzying array of nudibranchs. A night dive revealed a different cast of characters. A mere wisp amid the scraggly seagrass, a pygmy pipehorse sat immobile, anchored to a blade of seagrass with its tail. I marvelled as to how Digger even saw it in the first place! A dwarf scorpionfish lumbered across the substrate as lizardfish grinned and anemone hermit crabs scuttled.

 The remaining dives at Witu proved equally spellbinding, with fish life and coral galore. Snappers and surgeonfish swarmed the reef tops while barracuda schools cruised the blue. Was it possible to be blasé about barracudas?!? Anchor hoisted, we set out for the overnight voyage to Fathers Reefs. Arriving before dawn, the trip’s most far-flung destination proved to be its most dramatic. Dominating the horizon was the soaring silhouette of Ulawun Volcano.  One of the country’s most active, its lofty 2,334-metre summit is the highest in the entire Bismarck Archipelago.

Alan reckons Fathers is home PNG’s healthiest shark population in. Over the years, a few specific locations have been designated shark-feeding sites, with the sharks quickly becoming habituated to the entire process. First up was Shaggy’s Reef and it didn’t disappoint! No sooner had we hit the water when a silvertip shark appeared, dutifully following us to the feeding site like a faithful dog. Taking position along a ridge top amphitheatre, silvertip, whitetip and grey reef sharks buzzed about like bees, all eager for some of the fishy morsels lodged in Digger’s perforated baitbox. Red bass and bluefin trevalley circled expectantly, as a massive Napolean wrasse shyly kept to the periphery.

Another brilliant shark dive was Killibob’s Knob, although the star attractions proved decidedly more rambunctious! A muffled exclamation of “Hey” caused me to turn to see a tiny whitetip snapping at Junior’s hand. I guess that adage about small dogs applies equally to sharks; It’s the small ones you have to worry about! Also joining the fray was a large moray eel. It seemed especially perturbed by my firing strobes; at one point I looked up to find it staring me in the face!

The next morning, I awoke to Allan knocking at my door. “Grab your camera”, was all I needed to hear and I quickly dressed. Clambering up the stairs, I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise, with Ulawan’s smouldering summit burnished gold and orange by the rising sun. Sipping a coffee, it was like having my own personal sunrise!

After the shark adrenaline rush, the subsequent two days at Fathers proved equally enthralling. Anemones were abundant with an astonishing array of colours. One specimen’s tentacles were withdrawn entirely, resembling a gelatinous magenta ball! A night dive revealed scorpionfish, slipper lobsters, cuttlefish and a variety of nudibranchs, some of which I have never seen before. Hawksbill turtles were also abundant. One friendly pair at Jayne’s Gully practically collided with my camera, providing some of my favourite images of the week.

Back in Kimbe, we visited a number of new sites mixed with old favourites. South Emma featured a swim-through at 30m, while Kirsty Jane’s revealed bumblebee shrimp, basket stars, spaghetti worms and a long-clawed squat lobster. We spent our final night aboard anchored in Kimbe Bay as a glorious sunset set the sky ablaze.

Alan saved some of the best dives for last. Distinguished by its forest of red whip corals, Susan’s Reef was a favourite from my first trip. Massive gorgonians dripped with feather stars as a plethora of growth enveloped every square centimetre of the reef, creating a virtual undersea Garden of Eden.

Sadly nine days of superb diving had come to an end but my Walindi experience wasn’t quite over, as I decided to stay a few extra days. On my previous trip, I had lamented I had never got to experience any of Walindi’s terrestrial attractions. Happily, I got my chance! The first afternoon, I embarked on a bird-watching hike with the UK group from the FeBrina. Trudging uphill along the thickly forested trail, we emerged to an open ridge top providing commanding views of the entire coast. Our guide Joseph was a natural born twitcher, spotting endemic blue-eyed cockatoos, ecclectus parrots and Blyth’s hornbills. Unfortunately, our hike was cut short by a looming tropical downpour and we arrived at the truck in the nick of time.

The following day, we took a 4-wheel drive trip to the “hot river”, a stream warmed to 43 degrees by a volcanic spring. After driving for an hour through an oil palm plantation, the natural forest returned. Stately vine-shrouded trees flanked the road as we finally reached our destination. A trail beckoned to the stream beyond, revealing a scene of idyllic beauty.

The riverbank’s red mud provided a natural exfoliating treatment, providing our very own jungle spa. Just the ticket after 9 days of diving! Adjacent to where a cascade spilled through a cleft in the rocks, a small pool provided respite, complete with some rocks to sit on in the chest deep water. However, getting to it proved downright hazardous, with the surging current nearly ripping off my swim trunks!

Before heading back, Joseph drove us to a viewpoint offering a stunning panorama from the distant coast to the just visible barren slopes of Mt. Gabuna. Trudging to the overlook, I practically trod on a very large (but dead) spiny stick insect. I couldn’t help but think it was big enough to put on a sausage bun!

In retrospect, sensory overload could be used to describe the entire trip. With wrecks, reefs, sharks and muck, the nine-day trip was truly spectacular and encapsulated the best that PNG had to offer. Combined with the outstanding service by Alan and his superb crew, it was truly sad to say goodbye. Next time however, I will let someone else carry my bag back up the stairs!